Abortion in a strangely faithless Russia

OnionDomesFrom time to time, readers on the left side of the cultural aisle get upset with the GetReligionistas because of the amount of space we dedicate to abortion and other “Culture of Life” issues.

We don’t hide the fact that we all back traditional church doctrines on these matters, which is not the same thing as saying that we fit neatly into either political party. However, confessing the fact that you are a pro-lifer is just about all you have to do these days to be labeled a right-winger.

Anyway, it is impossible to talk about media bias research in the late 20th century and beyond without focusing on coverage of abortion (and now, issues if marriage and family). As recent elections have demonstrated, these cultural and moral issues are also linked to divisions between the two parties — ragged divisions, but divisions nonetheless — that often are linked to religious beliefs and practice.

If you talk about abortion and the news, you almost always end up talking about religion and the news.

Thus, as an Eastern Orthodox Christian, I was very interested in that recent Los Angeles Times piece that ran under the double-stacked headline, “Abortion foes begin to make their case in Russia — Doctors and politicians are quietly struggling to change the nation’s casual attitude toward the procedure.”

In many ways, it is a stunning piece — full of the kind of candor, nuance and moral confusion that surrounds abortion in real life, yet rarely makes it into news coverage. Abortion was part of the fabric of life in the old Soviet Union and much of that numbed culture remains. Yet there are moral ghosts in the culture as well that reveal themselves in strange ways. Here is the top of the report:

Abortionist Marina Chechneva remembers the old-style Russian gynecologists who worked in state hospitals and churned out back-to-back abortions like Soviet factory workers. She remembers the women who “used to use abortion as a kind of vacation, because in the U.S.S.R., they got three days off from work.”

These days, Chechneva is writing magazine articles about fetus development in hope of raising public opposition to abortion. After years of handling fetuses, she explains, she has come to feel a responsibility toward the unborn children.

“They should realize that what they’re doing is already a murder,” she said.

A fledgling antiabortion movement is beginning to stir in Russia. Driven by a growing discussion of abortion as a moral issue and, most of all, by a government worried about demographics, doctors and politicians are quietly struggling to lower what is believed to be one of the world’s highest abortion rates.

Read on. In effect, abortion is still a means of birth control. Yet now, the government wants to see more births — to prevent the demographic suicide that is affecting so much of Western and Easter Europe and surrounding cultures.

Yet how do you talk about morality in the new Russia? Well, how about a religious frame of reference? Can the “conveyor belt” of abortion — an image from the story — judged as sinful?

The decision to choose abortion shouldn’t be so casual, according to Russian lawmakers.

“The spiritual position,” said Natalia Karpovich, a leader of the State Duma committee focused on family, women and children, “should be that this is murder and the woman who does this commits a sin. Still, I want to stress it’s a woman’s choice.”

Karpovich is among Russian lawmakers who’ve pushed for media messages casting abortion in a less neutral light. She also supports new measures meant to encourage childbirth by paying out cash bonuses and opening new
day-care centers across the country.

“Like on packs of cigarettes or bottles of alcohol, advertisements for abortion services should be obligated to warn about the consequences,” she said. “That they may result in infertility, that some bad changes may happen in
the female organism.”

So there are spiritual questions. But there seems to be a major voice missing, some major voice in Russian history, culture, literature and thought. The word Tradition — with a large “T” as in ancient church fathers — factors into this.

Now, I am not arguing that this voice is as powerful as it once was or that, in a post-Soviet world, it has regain strength and, tragically, integrity in all that it does. But how can one write a story about this topic without mentioning the Russian Orthodox faith and tradition? Read the story. Did I miss something?

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Strange that Russian Orthodoxy or the Russian Orthodox Church was not mentioned at all regarding this issue. I spent 2 and a half weeks in Russia this summer and visited many Russian churches and monasteries (including a number I visited off the beaten tourist track)–And in EVERY church and monastery I went into one could see a Faith being reinvigorated–with many young adults taking part in services, lighting candles, buying icons, religious books, etc.
    And, although the Orthodox strategy to fight abortion might be different–THE TRADITION against abortion is the same as the Catholic Tradition and, it seems to me, should have been delved into considering the phoenix-like rise of the Russian Church since the demise of the Soviet State. Surely this should have an effect on what direction the abortion issue goes in Russia.

  • Dave

    From time to time, readers on the left side of the cultural aisle get upset with the GetReligionistas because of the amount of space we dedicate to abortion and other “Culture of Life” issues.

    Terry, please stop misrepresenting the liberals on this board. What we object to is Mark’s chronic insistence on calling pro-life language neutral language. …

  • Ted

    This is all very encouraging. However I worry that although Russia seems to be converting back to Orthodox Christianity there is not a commensurate increase in the awareness of the dangers of excessive nationalism. What happened recently in Georgia is a case in point. The threats over the Crimea and Sevastopol and the Russian sponsored attempts at destabilization there and in other parts of the Ukraine are not recommended Christian activities. We must all remember that World War I was started by practicing Christians (Princip and his gang probably excepted). Converting back to Christianity is very welcome but looking at the past and at recent activities, is not enough. As a conservative Catholic I do not spare my own country, the U.S. (Iraq, etc) from this criticism.

  • jan marie

    Abortion doesn’t solve problems. It creates a multitude of problems (most lifelong) which the media thus far refuses to address. It’s why reporters like Teresa Tomieo and many others have had to find their voice outside of the secular media because their findings are muted. silenced. It is unfair that women do not learn this until they have already had their abortion and then find themselves too ‘silenced’ on the ‘otherside’ of the debate. Why is it that it has become such a religiously ‘hijacked’ issue?? Because religion is the only place you are not silenced!…

    I thought myself as a ‘tolerant’ person for years until I got the facts. Now I know that being ‘tolerant’ served no one. silence always helps the oppresser.

  • Emily

    I was just in Russia a few weeks ago. Over the course of my most recent trip, I was able to speak to many Russians, including those who consider themselves Orthodox believers (they made the veruyushiy/podsvechnik distinction).

    Russia isn’t faithless, but it’s also far from faithful. To be certain, all sorts of religious movements are (re)gaining strength in the past 20 years there — Orthodoxy, of course, but also Protestantism, Catholicism, Islam and Buddhism. But even the Russians I spoke with mentioned that some of the (re)development of religion seems superficial, infused with nationalism.

    It does seem strange that there is no mention in the story of the Russian Orthodox Church, however. It isn’t all that strong an influence in many parts of Russia today, but the Russian Orthodox bishops have, from time to time, issued pronouncements against abortion and the like. Additionally, one of the lawmakers in the story refers to abortion as a “spiritual matter,” which might have prompted a question about her own religious beliefs or affiliation.

    On another note, a friend of mine in Ukraine encountered a woman (now in her late 50s/early 60s) who claimed to have had 30 abortions during her childbearing years. Is that even medically possible? The two of us Americans had our doubts about the medical possibility of this number, but the Ukrainians didn’t really bat their eyes at the number and were willing to consider it plausible — which says a lot, I think, about family planning practices during the Soviet era.

  • carl

    More and more religion is seen as a private appendage to a private life – something akin to choosing a favortie football team. It is not seen as having anything useful or authoritative to say on issues of public morality. Religiously-motivated opinions just don’t matter. So I would not be surprised to see the press ignore religion completely in this article. In fact, inquiring of its opinions might be construed as giving it undue attention.

    Religion gets a play in stories when it is seen as a dangerous intruder into the public square (“Religious conservatives attempt to impose Taliban-like theocracy”) or when it is seen as hypocritical (“Anti-gay minister found in bed with boyfriend.”) Beyond that, I think the media just reflects the growing cultural detachment from religious authority. As in “Who cares what any particular church thinks about that issue. It’s not like they have any important insight. And most of them are lost in the stone age anyways.”


  • Dave

    Carl: There’s a difference between religious devotion and religious authority. The former is still quite strong in America, as polls indicate, while the latter has steadily weakened as minority faiths and those of no faith have demanded and, to an extent, received equal treatment under law and socially. Russia appears to be in a similar condition. A good thoughtful piece of journalism could explore whether religious devotion is coming back from the Communist interregnum, or never actually went away; and whether religious authority is enjoying a comeback or is still just as nugatory as it was under the commissars.

  • emily

    I would not be surprised to see the press ignore religion completely in this article. In fact, inquiring of its opinions might be construed as giving it undue attention.

    One of the lawmakers — a member of the Russian Duma, equivalent to our Congress — is quoted in the article as saying that abortion is a spiritual matter and a sin. This might have been a good place for the journalist to inquire ever so briefly into the lawmaker’s religious beliefs, at very least. And then, if she is a member of a religious group that officially opposes abortion, a brief mention of that might be appropriate. (E.g. “Ms. Karpovich is a member of the Russian Orthodox Church, which opposes abortion.” Note, however, that I have no idea whether the lawmaker is in fact Orthodox — she may well be some other religion.) Or something like that. It could be quick, but why ignore the issue when the subject you are quoting explicitly brings it up?

  • http://demographer.livejournal.com/ Ba-ldei Aga

    Very few of Russians are Christians ;(

  • http://www.healinghearts.org Barb

    I am working with Healing Hearts, a ministry to reach out to women who struggle after abortion. We have been working in the Ukraine for the past 7 years and have seen the ravishing effects of abortion on the women of Ukraine. It is not unusual to talk with Ukrainian women who have had 5, 10, 20 abortions or more. The government has paid for abortions and very little birth control was available to the women. When they share their stories, they say the same things American women say….God made a woman’s heart to love her children and God made them to bear and nurture. When we violate that God given desire we will experience shame, guilt, depression, anger, etc. We have seen God open doors to reach out to the women through the Baptist Union and some of the Christian churches in Ukraine. There is Hope & Healing after abortion! Check out our website at http://www.healinghearts.org

  • Natalia

    Emily: I understand that like most who have commented you are not of Russian heritage and have only spend a mer few weeks in Russia. On the same note I think that sites such as this do a lot in educating the world – mainly North America on the issues happening else where.

    I would like to question what you meant when you said “which says a lot, I think, about family planning practices during the Soviet era.” What exactly are you thinking about? Did you know that the Soviet Union was actually one of the first states to give women power, through the feminist movement that occurred there way before it occurred or was even thought of in the United States? The right to have an abortion is a right for a woman to chose what is right for her, without womens power to chose, where would we be today?

    When a lot of you are questioning the article and the fact that it does not have a church presence you are all forgetting it was written for an American publication. All media has bias and the United States and Russia tend to portray one another in a negative light in their media. I personally have not looked into what the church has done in terms of abortions but I am sure that if I did I would be able to find at least something that has been published about the church’s involvement in all of this.

    A lot of you are stating your own opinion which is what freedom of speech is all about but try to look outside the main stream American media for your information, for they tend to be extremely bias.

    Thank you, just thought I would add my two word on the topic.